Everest Skydive Libel Case

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Good to see The Guardian offering some comfort to Nick Clegg in its leader column today. Despite everything, I'm still a Clegg fan, and his comments yesterday about the UK's ludicrous libel laws were very welcome. 'The test of a free press,' he said, 'is its capacity to unearth the truth, exposing charlatans and vested interests along the way.' As The Guardian observed, you might count Clegg among those who need exposing, but what about the world of adventure? There is no shortage of dodgy tour operators in the high mountains, but it's rare there is any serious investigation into their activties, because, to misquote The Guardian, comment is cheap and facts are really expensive. Especially facts that can provoke a heavy-duty legal response. Outdoor magazines are too small to mount a proper investigation. It takes a lot of time and a good lawyer to keep you out of the courts. The nationals, on the other hand, who have legal advice in house and the resources to dig for the truth have bigger fish to fry.

So Stephen Slater, a young film-maker currently being sued for libel by bankrupt adventure travel operator Nigel Gifford, deserves credit for having huge cojones if nothing else. Feeling that clients on Gifford's 2008 Everest Skydive had been sold a pup, Slater, who went on the expedition as an unpaid cameraman, put together a film that made some hair-raising allegations about Gifford and his company High & Wild. Gifford put his business into liquidation two months after the trip, having taken at least $500,000 from customers and without paying many of his suppliers. It's not unreasonable for those customers, and his skydiving instructors who are owed money, to wonder what happened to that cash. There's a clear public interest here in discovering the truth and alerting potential clients to what has gone on, since Gifford seems to be back in business. Having seen some of these complaints myself, from reputable people who feel cheated, it's clear Gifford has a case to answer.

When the film went out on YouTube, Gifford immediately slapped a libel writ on Slater. There was no request to take the film down, no letter warning of consequences, he just hit the big red button saying 'See you in court!' I think it likely that I would have pulled the film down and begged for mercy at this point. Libel is horrendously expensive, and without the protection of libel insurance, Slater was looking at paying costs of six figures if he tried to defend his film. Maybe that's what Gifford expected, I don't know, but Slater didn't cave in. He fought back, putting together a defence and gathering a sheaf of witness statements from Gifford's former clients and former business partners. I don't know which way this will go, but Slater seems to me a serious and intelligent young man, not somone with a grudge to work out.

Gifford meanwhile could face arrest if he returns to Nepal, after a warrant for his arrest on charges of fraud was issued by a court in Kathmandu, following a complaint to the police from one of his unpaid creditors.

Posted by Ed Douglas at 5.30 PM